What is consciousness?

In Phi, Guilio Tononi explores the various characteristics that make consciousness unique. Through a dialogue between Galileo, J., and Alturi, Tononi defines the integrated infromation theory.

The article below published by the Scientific American is an excerpt from neuroscientist Guilio Tononi entitled PHI: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul.

This excerpt features a conversation between Galileo, J., and Alturi wherein the three attempts to define the nature of consciousness by comparing a camera and an individual named Ishmael. Based on their discussion, one may say that consciousness has the following characteristics:

  • It is what allows humans to have a unified experience of the world,
  • Consciousness has to exist in a system (or complex) ordered in a certain way. Though this unique order, consciousness is able to create a view of reality that is much greater than the individual experience of various components.
  • Consciousness cannot be divided into component parts without the loss of information.

Implications for AI

Guilio Tononi’s work is important for various reasons. For one, it echoes the the findings of the Human Genome Project wherein researches found only 19,000 to 20,000 protein-coding genes were found, instead of the expected 100,000 to 200,000. How can there only be 20,000 genes responsible for the complexity and diversity exhibited by the human body?

This same question is being repeated today with the brain. How can a three-pound mass enable human beings to contemplate its experience, and create tools that will help it to discover the nature of the world around it? The way our brain is organized may give us a clue to this, but Tononi’s work shows us that this capacity reside not on the individual functions of the parts of the brain. Rather, the interconnections between these parts give rise to a higher capacity, consciousness, a capacity that will readily disappear when the brain is divided into its component parts [read Why Consciousness Does Not Compute to discover how this same concept is explained by quantum physics].

This is probably the biggest hindrance in the creation of a conscious machine. Though there are computer hardware that can mimic the human brain [see articles on Loihi, the first neuromorphic chip, and SpiNNaker, the first million-core supercomputer that mimic’s the human brain], none of them have learned the human capacities of creativity, wisdom, friendship, and love. Though their computing power has increased drastically in just a few years, no computer can ever explain why they choose a certain solution, nor can they explain whether the solution they have chosen is truly the best for all involved humans. 

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